When you hear about Croatia from anyone who has been there, it’s all about the beaches.
“You have to go to Dubrovnik”, people cry. “The islands are amazing”, they say.
And I’m sure they are… but it seems that if something in Croatia isn’t on the coast, it’s just not worth talking about. Hell, the Plitvice Lakes National Park gets upwards of a million visitors per year, and yet I’d never even heard of it before arriving in the country.
So it’s no surprise, however, that I didn’t have particularly high expectations for my time in Zagreb. Just another European capital, I figured. A few pretty buildings, perhaps. A church or two, for sure. Probably an old town of some sort.
Just the usual.
And yes, it definitely has all of those things. In abundance, in fact. The compact old town is easily walkable, with a long strip of restaurants and bars leading up Tkalčićeva Street from the main square. It’s the kind of place you go to drink over-priced beers and wear your best crumpled shirt in the hope you’ll look less like a backpacker and more like the beautiful people that surround you.
That never works, of course, but at least the beer was cold, and the waiters always seemed to be cheerful. They were probably just laughing at my shirt, now that I think about it.
Truth be told, though, if all that Zagreb had going for it was some cobbled streets, decent restaurants and a few pretty statues, it wouldn’t really be all that unusual. A nice place to stop for a night, perhaps, but not much more.
Zagreb has at least one thing, however, that you won’t find anywhere else in the world.
The Museum of Broken Relationships.
The brainchild of two Zagreb artists who broke up after several years together, the museum celebrates (if that is the right word) failed relationships. It is one of those places that you feel a little strange walking in to – not least of all when you’re there with a girlfriend…
Tempting fate, much?
Unsure what to expect, within seconds I was utterly transfixed. Consisting of a mixture of everyday objects – books, clothes, cell phones – and more unusual items – the axe used to chop an ex’s furniture into pieces, or a pair of handcuffs – it’s actually the text that accompanied each exhibit that most affected me.
Written by the person that donated it, these simple white cards tore at the heartstrings. Anger, anguish, relief and despair flowed out. I’m sure the donations and the writing were cathartic for the contributor, but many of them were painful to read for voyeuristic visitors like me.
Peering out of the corner of my eye, I noticed plenty of tears at the museum that day. I don’t imagine that is even slightly unusual.
Abandoned wedding dresses. Broken glass. Photos. Sex toys. And the most painful exhibit of all, a flashing dog collar. I’m not going to tell you why. Just go and have a look for yourself.
Stepping back out of the museum an hour later, the laughing conversations and bright sunlight seemed out of place after the quiet soundtrack that had been playing inside my head.
The Museum of Broken Relationships received an award last year marking it as the “Most Innovative Museum in Europe”, and it’s not hard to see why. I’ve never been anywhere quite like it, and it was easily one of the best small museums I’ve ever been to.
Walking back down the road towards the edge of the hill, an encompassing view of Zagreb laid out before us, I wondered how best to process all that we had just seen.
Spotting the tables laid out under the shade of a few welcoming trees, the answer became at once apparent. I dealt with a challenging emotional situation in the time-honoured way that all good Kiwi males do.
I sat down and had a beer.
This trip through Central and Eastern Europe is made possible by the good folks at Eurail.com.